(New York) – Women in Saudi Arabia have made some progress in participating in sports for health, competition, and professional opportunities but serious barriers remain. On the eve of the Rio Olympics, the Saudi government, including the new women’s section of the Saudi sports authority, should remove the remaining barriers to sports in schools, businesses, federations, and team sports.
Four women will represent the country in Rio, a slight improvement from the two who competed in the 2012 London Summer Olympics. But inside Saudi Arabia, widespread discrimination still hampers access to sports for Saudi women and girls, including in public education. This exists against a backdrop of pervasive discrimination that constrains women’s day-to-day lives in Saudi Arabia. Women are not allowed to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison without a male guardian’s permission, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. They are not allowed to drive.
“Saudi women are making tremendous strides in the world of sports – climbing the tallest mountains and swimming the lengths of rivers,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “They are showing their determination, talent, effort, and heart despite daunting legal, cultural, and religious hurdles. As the Rio Olympics open, Saudi Arabia needs to change the game by addressing the profound discrimination that holds back women’s and girls’ participation in sport in the kingdom.”
The Human Rights Watch 2012 report, Steps of the Devil, examined in depth what was then the country’s effective ban on participation by Saudi women and girls in sports and physical education and its negative effects, including on health.
Saudi Arabia discriminates against women and girls by denying them the same opportunities to exercise and play sports as men and boys. As of July 2016, women were not allowed to attend or participate in national tournaments or state-organized sports leagues. But, in a positive move, on August 1, the General Authority for Sports, which functions like a sports ministry, announced a new female department and appointed Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud as its head.
Saudi women are still denied access to state sports infrastructure. They may not participate in national tournaments or state-organized sports leagues – or even attend men’s national team matches as spectators. The more than 150 official sports clubs regulated and supported by the General Authority for Sports are not easily accessible to women, and the national competitive tournaments it organizes are for men only. The Saudi National Olympic Committee still does not have a women’s section.
“The creation of a new women’s department in the General Authority for Sports is a welcome move, the department should lead reforms for women’s access to sport and other physical exercise in the country,” said Worden.
The country has made some positive, if incremental, change. While Human Rights Watch was unable to get clear information from the government through written requests on physical education in state schools for girls, public reports in recent years indicate that some government schools are now offering physical education to girls. Private schools have long been able to offer physical education, and in May 2013, Saudi authorities ruled that those programs could continue, provided that girls wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female instructors.
Women are also opening female-only fitness studios across the country. But major challenges – official, religious, bureaucratic, and cultural – remain for women who want or need to practice sports for health reasons, for fun, or to compete. Some Saudi women say they have no other choice but to leave the country to train as instructors or as competitive athletes.
Human Rights Watch interviewed Saudi women from various walks of life, including athletes, activists, doctors, trainers, and entrepreneurs, who described how they are pressing ahead to claim their right to play sports and to open fitness centers. One advocate of fitness for women is using her Chamber of Commerce position to lobby for more women’s gyms. Other women are pushing boundaries by running women’s private sports teams as businesses, opening unlicensed gyms in defiance of the government’s refusal to legitimize them, pressuring authorities, and training in and outside of Saudi Arabia to represent the country in international competition.
A serious focus on reforms to state schools, gym licensing, and training of physical education teachers by the General Authority for Sports, the Education and Health ministries, and the Saudi National Olympic Committee could have a lasting positive impact on the lives and well-being of millions of women and girls in the country and help them realize their equal rights to practice sport.
Saudi Arabia’s 2016 Vision 2030, a new government road map for economic and developmental growth, could also improve access to sport for women and girls. The road map says: “Opportunities for the regular practice of sports have often been limited. This will change.” Saudi officials should fulfill this promise by allowing and encouraging sports for women and girls.
The Olympic Charter states that, “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit.” In December 2014, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unanimously adopted a set of reforms called “Olympic Agenda 2020,” which made gender equality a central plank of the Olympic movement. Among key reforms, for the first time, the IOC’s own agenda precludes the selection of a host country that discriminates against women and girls.
In January 2015, IOC President Thomas Bach rejected a suggestion by Saudi Arabia that the country could seek to co-host a sex-segregated Olympics with a Gulf neighbor, Bahrain, with men to compete in Saudi Arabia and women in Bahrain. Bach stated that Saudi Arabia would be denied the chance to bid until the country complied with rules barring discrimination. “A commitment to ‘non-discrimination’ will be mandatory for all countries hoping to bid for the Olympics in the future,” Bach said. “Countries like Saudi Arabia must really work to allow female athletes to freely participate.”
In line with the Olympic Charter’s mandate that discrimination is incompatible with the ideals of the Olympic movement, and the IOC’s mission to eradicate such discrimination, the IOC should encourage Saudi Arabia to accelerate reforms to end discrimination against women and girls in sports, as in other areas of life. The IOC should work with Saudi officials to encourage reforms including mandatory physical education programs in girls’ state schools, the creation of a women’s section inside the Saudi National Olympic Committee, sports federations for women, and the removal of all obstacles to women’s participation in international competitions such as the Youth Olympics.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly promised, and is internationally obligated, to take immediate steps to end discrimination against women and girls. The IOC should do its part to encourage and assist Saudi Arabia to meet these goals as soon as possible. Otherwise, another generation of Saudi girls may grow up without meaningful opportunities to play sports and enjoy the attendant health benefits.
The Saudi Government Should:
- Act on the Shura Council’s April 2014 recommendation and introduce mandatory physical education in all state schools for girls throughout the years of compulsory education and set out a clear timeline;
- Ensure that women are able to train to teach physical education in schools;
- Create a women’s section in the Saudi National Olympic Committee;
- Establish sports federations for women and allow sports federations for women to compete in-country and internationally;
- Provide funding, training, and support to women who want to compete in international sporting competitions on an equal footing with men, and enter women in international sporting competitions, and;
- Allow Saudi women to attend sporting events in the country’s stadiums, including to watch men’s national teams.
“Women and girls in Saudi Arabia should be able to realize their dreams of taking part in sports from the primary school gym to winning gold medals,” Worden said. “Saudi authorities need to address gender discrimination in sports, not just because it is required by international human rights law, but because it could have lasting benefits for the health and well-being of the next generation of Saudi girls.”
How Saudi Women Are Changing the Game for Sports Equality
Saudi Arabia’s 13 million women and four million girls face severe discrimination in all aspects of their lives. The country’s male guardianship system requires women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad or marry, and women may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. This system, and the related issue of sex segregation, is the backdrop to other pervasive restrictions on women’s day-to-day lives in Saudi Arabia, including with respect to exercising for fitness and engaging in sports.
There is ongoing discussion and debate within Saudi Arabia on the health benefits of sports for women and on the urgency of reform to ensure women’s access to sports.
In Saudi Arabia, schools are segregated by gender. Many girls’ schools do not include physical education or sports programs in the curriculum. But boys’ primary, intermediate, and most secondary state schools have compulsory physical education classes. Since 2013, private schools have been permitted to offer physical education programs to girls so long as the girls wear “decent clothing” and are supervised by female instructors.
In 2011, the Education Ministry wrote to Human Rights Watch that, “The issue of girls' physical education is under serious consideration as one of the priorities of the ministry’s leadership that regards physical education in schools as one of the necessities helping male and female students to stay healthy.”
In April 2014, the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king, directed the Education Ministry to study the possibility of introducing mandatory physical education for girls in state schools in compliance with Sharia rules on dress and sex segregation. The council voted overwhelmingly – 92 to 18 – in favor of the recommendation. But, in March 2015, then-Education Minister Azzam al-Dakhil stated that even if physical education is introduced in girls’ state schools, it will not be mandatory.
Saudi Arabia has still not incorporated physical education as part of a compulsory curriculum for girls in state schools.
Despite the government’s lack of progress, some state schools have created some access to physical activity for girls. In 2012, a state girls’ school in the Eastern Province erected basketball hoops and allowed students to play at break time. The Saudi daily al-Watan reported that the school was the first state-run girls’ school that openly encouraged sports. In March 2015, soon after the education minister stated physical education would not be mandatory, Okaz (another Saudi daily) nevertheless reported that five state schools in Ha’il had introduced fitness programs for girls. Yet there is no indication that the large majority of state schools have followed suit.
“Warda,” who like some other women interviewed asked Human Rights Watch not to use her real name, is a Saudi woman who runs a private sports club for girls in Saudi Arabia. She told Human Rights Watch that, “The majority of public schools for girls still have no sports or gym classes.” She noted that introducing these programs would require outfitting and providing girls’ state schools with gym facilities and trained instructors.
Saudi Arabia’s State Sports Infrastructure
Saudi Arabia does not grant women equal access to state sports infrastructure. Women are not allowed to attend men’s matches as spectators, or participate in national tournaments or state-organized sports leagues. None of the more than 150 official sports clubs regulated and supported by the General Authority for Sports are open to women, and the national competitive tournaments organized by the authority are for men only.
In April 2015, the Shura Council renewed its recommendation to the General Presidency for Youth Welfare (GPYW), the body since renamed the General Authority for Sports, to establish a women’s section. On August 1, the General Authority for Sports came through on this recommendation and created a women’s department. However, the Saudi National Olympic Committee still does not have an official women’s section.
Several female athletes in Saudi Arabia reported that they struggle to find professional training or coaching, and many often need to train outside the country, drawing on their own or their families’ finances.
“Amal,” a Saudi martial arts expert who lives abroad, said, “I am used to training every day so when I go to vacation for like three to four weeks there [in Saudi Arabia], I have nowhere to train…I try to contact (martial arts) schools and there are some – but only for guys, of course.”
In 2013, 27-year-old Raha Moharrak made history as the first Saudi woman and the youngest Arab to reach the summit of Mount Everest. However, she points out that her challenges to train as a Saudi woman were nearly insurmountable: “There were no outdoor training facilities, so to prepare I had to get a driver to take me to the middle of the desert, where I would fill a backpack with sand and run up and down hills.”
Many Saudi women have undertaken their own sports initiatives across the country, creating fitness clubs, organizing sports competitions for women, and classes ranging from yoga to CrossFit.
Women have also formed a number of private sports teams for basketball, badminton, and football. In April, the Jeddah United under-20 women’s basketball team, a private team started in 2003, participated in a basketball tournament in the Maldives after previous trips to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Malaysia, and the United States. In the decade since Jeddah United was founded by the Saudi sportswoman and entrepreneur Lina Almaeena, the team has expanded and has been a prominent trailblazer in team sports as the first private Saudi sports company to train both boys’ and girls’ teams and to promote the health benefits of exercise and team sports.
Sports Teaching and Instruction
The General Authority for Sports, led by Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has yet to open women’s sport facilities or provide clear guidelines and licensing opportunities for female sports instructors, coaches, or referees. However, with a growing emphasis on health and sports in the country, and with a new women’s section in the authority, there are promises of change.
“In school our P.E. teachers were from Egypt,” said one Saudi female athlete who went to private school in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. “We never had a Saudi teacher that taught us P.E. and I haven’t heard of any Saudi P.E. teachers.” But women athletes Human Rights Watch interviewed said that while the majority of teachers and trainers in Saudi Arabia are still from abroad, women are increasingly claiming their right to participate in, learn about, and teach sports. Some women study online for certification by international fitness associations.
“Current trainers in Saudi do not all have the opportunity to become certified trainers, so mostly they are self-trained,” said “Salma,” who founded a fitness center for women.
“Dina,” is a cycling instructor in the Eastern Province who is passionate about spinning, or indoor stationary cycling, and co-founded an exercise studio. “Fitness in Saudi is growing a lot, especially with females. At the studio we invest in [training] Saudi fitness instructors. They came to learn from us because they wanted to become instructors.”
By creating exercise spaces and through instruction, Saudi women are not only creating sport opportunities, but also breaking ground to provide women with professional development including the possibility of new career opportunities to become fitness instructors.
Hurdles for Women’s Fitness
Although the General Authority for Sports licenses men’s fitness clubs, women interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported difficulties in obtaining licenses and some said their clubs had been shut down for operating without those licenses. In 2009 and 2010, the government closed several private gyms for women on the grounds that they were unlicensed, prompting an online campaign against the ban by a group of Saudi women under the ironic slogan, “Let her get fat.”
Women still struggle to open and license women’s fitness centers. Some international chains such as “Curves,” a gym for women, have obtained licenses for “physiotherapy” through the Health Ministry. However, this is an expensive, slow, and bureaucratic process, according to a leading female fitness studio founder. Because state licensing is still difficult, women have opened many “health clubs,” with some access to exercise, ranging from yoga classes to mixed martial arts to Zumba, but these generally operate in a legal gray area. “Aisha,” a climber and women’s sports advocate, said that because of restrictions, many women open and operate such these out-of-status “health clubs” under licenses for hotels, tailors, or nail salons, and are not able to offer the variety of health and sporting opportunities available for men.
Dina, the cycling instructor, said that after she started working at a gym in 2013, the facility had to close because it lacked legal permits. “We didn’t have any place that we could go to just work out or enjoy a class,” she said, “except if it was under a hospital or under a hotel or if you were doing it privately in a compound.”
“Salma,” a Saudi businesswoman and sports instructor, said her gym was shut down in 2013 for operating without a license: “When the government closed our center all the members started going crazy. They were contacting us saying we have to do something – for example write a petition and get all the women members ready to go to the ministry or go to the governor of the region and ask for an exemption.” Salma said she, along with other members of the local chamber of commerce, presented their case to the youth welfare minister and talked about the importance of licensing women’s gyms: “He said he was with us 100 percent and that something has to be done; we just need to find the right people to take this forward.”
After these discussions, Salma opened a fitness center where she and other trainers could continue to teach spinning, Pilates, and strength training classes. The studio is still not licensed as a women’s gym under the General Authority for Sports – but based on her discussions with the authorities, Salma believes that the government will not only continue to allow them to operate, but soon begin to license female gyms, so that they can operate legally.
In 2016, the government announced the creation of an inter-ministerial committee to study in detail the question of establishing and licensing women’s sports clubs, the Saudi Gazette reported. This could be a major advance to regularize fitness for women, and create new areas of economic opportunity for women in business.
Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” recognized that: “Opportunities for the regular practice of sports have often been limited. This will change.” Vision 2030 was accompanied by the National Transformation Plan (NTP), which sets specific benchmarks to achieve by 2020. The NTP included a number of goals to increase sports and exercise in the country, including designing a sports curriculum, training teachers, and launching extracurricular sports programs. Among other relevant benchmarks, the Ministry of Health is tasked with improving “public health services with focus on obesity.”
Yet Vision 2030 and the NTP only set one specific goal for increasing women’s access to sports and exercise: the creation of a budget-line to license women’s sports halls. While this would certainly be a step forward, the government could and should do much more to increase women’s sporting opportunities and ensure that they can exercise to the same extent as men.
International Sports Competitions
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, three countries sent men-only national teams: Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Qatar provides an example of how a previously reluctant government can rapidly pivot to signal strong government support for women’s participation in sports. In 2001, Qatar set up the Qatar Women's Sport Committee. Since then, the Committee has incorporated a sports curriculum in its schools and sought to host international sports events for women. As a sign of official Qatari backing for women athletes, the Qatari Olympic shooter Bahiya al-Hamad was selected to lead with the national flag at the 2012 Olympic Games in London’s opening ceremony.
Saudi Arabia allowed female athletes in an international competition for the first time at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The two women put forward, Wujdan Shaherkani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field, did not meet Olympic qualifying standards, but were invited to participate in the weeks running up to the start of the 2012 Games under international pressure as Saudi Arabia was the last country sending a men-only national team. The Saudi female athletes were given IOC “wild cards,” a way to invite athletes whose participation is deemed important for reasons of equality and participation. The Saudi National Olympic Committee ordered the women to dress modestly, be accompanied by male guardians, and not mix with men. The women had only weeks to prepare.
Unfortunately, the women’s participation in London did not establish an immediately durable precedent. Saudi Arabia sent a male-only national team to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Mohammed al-Mishal, then secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia’s 2014 Asian Games team did not include any women because, “None have yet reached a level for international competition.”
According to Saudi female athletes who spoke to Human Rights Watch, women are training outside the country who hope to qualify as competitors on an international level, but they need support at home in Saudi Arabia, including sports facilities. As the climber and sports advocate Aisha told Human Rights Watch, Saudi women “are really capable of competing internationally and their times could qualify them for the bigger races, international races – there is actual talent and skill.”
In September 2014, al-Mishal promised women’s participation at the 2016 Olympic Games, but only in sports that according to him were “accepted culturally and religiously [for women] in Saudi Arabia” including equestrian sports, fencing, marksmanship, and archery.
But in July 2016, Saudi Arabia announced that four women will compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, two of them runners. The women who are selected again under the “wild card” system include Sarah Attar and Cariman Abu al-Jadail, runners in track and field; Lubna al-Omair, in fencing; and Wujud Fahmi in judo.
The Saudi National Olympic Committee, responsible for organizing competitive tournaments and selecting athletes to represent the country internationally, should open a women’s section to support and train these and other female athletes. Sports federations should have women’s as well as men’s sections to compete in sports and arrange national and international competitions.
Health and Sports
Exercise through team sports and physical education in school can contribute to fitness, and play a major role in the prevention of non-communicable diseases. The women Human Rights Watch interviewed uniformly mentioned exercise as helping them and friends with health concerns.
Obesity is a significant problem in Saudi Arabia. A 2010 study found that 34.4 percent of Saudi children between 5 and 18 were overweight (23.1 percent), obese (9.3 percent), or severely obese (2 percent). According to the Saudi Health Ministry, obese and overweight adults constitute more than 70 percent of the population. Females are significantly more obese than males, 44 percent to 26 percent.
Saudi Arabia has among the highest levels of physical inactivity among women in the world. In one 2015 study, Saudi women had the second highest level (73.1) of the 38 Muslim countries covered. A 2015 study by the International Diabetes Federation found that Saudi Arabia had the highest prevalence of diabetes compared with other Middle East and North African countries.
The World Health Organization says that physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of such chronic conditions as hypertension and diabetes. It is also one of the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and dementia – all conditions that result in premature death, disability, and loss of productivity. In 2014, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes accounted for more than 60 percent of deaths in Saudi Arabia. Reforms to increase women’s and girls’ access to and participation in exercise and sport are one way to help address the broader public health problem of physical inactivity among Saudi women.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 specifically mentions the link between exercise and health. It sets a goal of encouraging “widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic opportunities” to contribute to “a healthy and balanced lifestyle.” Aisha, the climber and fitness trainer, says, “Health-wise I think I owe it to sports and physical education…I feel healthier, I feel happier, and I have energy.”
Saudi Arabia, which acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, is legally obligated to end discrimination against women without delay, including fulfilling their equal right to health and ensuring that women and men have the “same opportunities to participate actively in sports and physical education.”
“Nadia,” a pediatrician who is also a devoted diver who exercises for health and well-being, has high hopes for girls in her country. “I wish for them a better future – to have the right to do sports indoors and outdoors, that they could attend matches, and that they could represent our country in the national and international competitions.”
Profiles of Saudi Women
In 2012, Sarah Attar became the first Saudi woman to compete in track and field at the Olympics. Along with the judo competitor Wujdan Shaherkani, she was one of only two women who represented Saudi Arabia at the London Games. She wrote, “I received the invitation from the International Olympic Committee only a month and a half before the opening ceremony.”
Attar, who has completed nine marathons since the London Games, studied art at Pepperdine University in California, and graduated with honors in 2014. She lives and trains in Mammoth Lakes, California, but has not forgotten her roots: “While visiting family in Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to speak at my cousins’ all-girls’ school. It was incredible to see their excitement for athletics and experience firsthand how I made an impact on their lives.” In 2013 the Saudi artist Shaweesh, part of the Gharem Studio collective, created a graffiti image of Sarah Attar running into the history books as one of the first two Saudi female Olympians.
In a blog published in June 2016, she wrote further of her experience: “The most powerful thing I have observed about our participation in the 2012 Games is that there is now a generation of Saudi Arabian girls growing up with the possibility of women competing in the Olympics. They see sports and athletic competition as something they can strive toward, and that is incredibly powerful.” Attar will compete again in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Royal Highness Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud
Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, is a business leader, and a public health and wellness advocate. In August 2016, she was appointed the first head of a women’s section of the Saudi General Authority of Sports. In this newly created role, she could have the responsibility for implementing a series of essential recommendations in this study, including to license women’s gyms and establish a curriculum for physical education in girls’ state schools.
“Women are going to the gym and getting fit,” she says. “They are definitely engaging in their health.”
Princess Reema has said that her goal is “Connecting the knowledge that it’s not just what you eat, it is how you think, it’s how you breathe, and it’s how you move.” On sports and fitness for girls, she points out, “If you want to change mindsets, you have to start when they’re young.”
In 2013, Raha Moharrak – then 27 – made history as the first Saudi woman and the youngest Arab to reach the summit of Mount Everest. With limited sports education and facilities for women in Saudi Arabia, Moharrak had to train herself to climb the world’s most challenging peaks. In just one year, she had conquered eight mountains, including Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
Now a health advocate, she says, “I can't imagine my life without sports and exercise.”
In 2015 at the age of 29, Moharrak learned how to ride a bicycle to join Team Shirzanan, a collective of Muslim sportswomen, who rode across the state of Iowa in the US on an awareness campaign promoting female sports participation as a human right. Moharrak’s memoir, For All Us Dreamers, will be published in 2017.
She said, “My hope, if I one day have daughters, is that they are born into a time where there are no firsts. There are no records, because we've done them all…I want to leave this world knowing that all the firsts are gone, are taken. There's no such thing as the first Arab or first Muslim, the first woman to do this or that. I want them to come in and say, ‘Wow, everything's been done. What can we do more?’ That’s what I want for my kids one day… They can be whatever they want, whoever they want, as long as they're happy and healthy.”